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19th Century London

By Jane Johnson

Admiral Nelson's triumph at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 enabled Britain to attain naval supremacy in Europe, which led to the confidence and prosperity which characterised the nation and, in particular, 19th century London. The triumphal Nelson's column, surrounded by Landseer's massive lions and set in Trafalgar Square in 1839, epitomised this mood. Other great building work, which shaped the London we know today, had started at Buckingham House in 1826. George IV had changed his plans to have his parents' London home merely reconstructed, and decided to transform it into a Royal Palace. The architect, John Nash, took so long to finish the building that, upon the King's death in 1830, he was quickly replaced. Edward Blore completed the Palace and later added the present east-wing for Queen Victoria (the facade was altered in 1913).

The prosperity of the City of London led to a rapid increase in land prices. The City's population started to move to the suburbs. In turn, the suburbs regrouped along existing class structures. The Upper and Middle Classes moved to areas such as Hampstead and the West End, while the poorer classes congregated in the East End in overcrowded and sometimes squalid conditions.

Industry, at one time based in homes or small workshops, now required massive machinery to function and was moved to the suburbs and beyond. One important trade, printing and, in particular, the newspaper presses, retained its foothold in Fleet Street, which became a social centre with 37 taverns. London became a massive office with clerks and book-keepers. Charles Dickens, whose graphic accounts of the poverty of 19th century London stirred the national conscience, worked for a time as a Parliamentary reporter, sharing the hardships of long hours and commuting suffered by clerical workers.

The construction of large-scale public railways, linking London to many of the major cities, transformed London's social and business life. The underground network and tramways followed. The growth of shipping and, in particular, the construction of the famous clippers enabled tea to be transported from China to the Thames. The transport links were crucial in the extending of colonial domination and international trade.

Industrial progress was sometimes double-edged. The invention of the modern water closet resulted in the piping of raw sewage into the Thames, which at the time was the source of London's water supply. In 1833, 10,000 Londoners died in a cholera epidemic, which led to a law banning burials within the city boundaries.

18th century legislators, faced with widespread poverty and crime, had responded by creating more and more capital felonies. Sir Robert Peel, as Tory Home Secretary, decided on a more enlightened approach, creating the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829. He was then able to push forward many law reforms. Later, as President of the Board of Trade, he was instrumental in removing unnecessary tariffs and moved towards free trade, which further increased prosperity. William Gladstone, who presided over four Ministries in the latter half of the century, was also a Liberal, a democrat, reformer and an advocate of free trade. Benjamin Disraeli, a Tory Prime Minister, and a favourite of Queen Victoria, also sought political reform and to increase enfranchisement of the working classes. The great reformers of the 19th century were faced with unprecedented social problems thrown up by the changes which followed the Industrial Revolution.

The Crystal Palace at Hyde Park

Victorian Londoners indulged in the view that their city was the heart of the Empire. In 1851, Prince Albert celebrated this sense of Imperial grandeur by holding the Great Exhibition under a massive glass pleasure dome in Hyde Park. As a trade advertisement to the rest of the world, it was a success, but fell short of Albert's loftier aim of promoting international harmony. Prince Albert endeavored to further promote the arts and sciences by building various museums, concert halls and educational facilities on land he had purchased in South Kensington. However, the building of the Royal Albert Hall was, unfortunately, not begun until seven years after his death in 1861. The Victoria and Albert Museum of Fine and Applied Arts took another thirty-two years. The cathedral-like Natural History Museum was also erected nearby and opened in 1881. Albert himself is further remembered in the city through his grandiose memorial on the edge of Kensington Gardens.

In 1897, Queen Victoria celebrated her Silver Jubilee with a massive pageant in the streets of London, in which many representatives from far corners of the Empire participated. She personally pressed the electrical button initiating the telegraphed message to India and beyond: "Thank my beloved people. God bless them".

Next: Modern Times in London



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